C’est Adam et Yves, Monsieur! – Becoming a Tour Guide.


About  two years ago, in total naivety, I popped into the Bureau de Tourisme to see if they ‘had a job going’. The women behind their desks peered at me as if I had just landed from a different planet (which indeed I just had) and sent me packing, and I spent the rest of the evening thinking how dreadfully rude they were.

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Two years on I see their point!

This January, a few curious jobs later, the door of the Bureau de Tourisme inched itself open just a little bit as I managed to get a place on the ‘Formation Guide Conferencier’ having quite by chance made a second tentative the day the Bureau had started recruiting. If I had had any inkling what I was about to put myself through, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so keen. But that’s niavity for you.

So it was that I turned up for an intensive three month lecture series, spending the worst part of the sub zero winter temperatures shivering in freezing monuments, led by two lecturers who can only be described as walking ‘Masterminds’ who spent a good proportion of their time, when not delivering the essentials, embellishing miniscule details and corroborating, or disputing each others event dating down to the sheerest milli-second. Clearly this level of detail was ridiculous…

Or was it?

Curiously, over the space of three months, the thirst for linking each historical event and ancient monument became almost unquenchable. The fact that the canons at the cathedral became so irritated by the merchants at the herb market in the cathedral square for using the cathedral as a meeting house when it rained that they demanded the markets relocation,  which in turn lead to the location of the future Palais de Justice on the same site in 1499. Equally interesting was the fact that the wife of King Charles the Mad held, in 1393, a fancy dress party for him as a distraction from government, in which all the men wore feathered costumes heavily impregnated with highly flammable glue. The Queen’s lover, the Duke of Orléans turned up with a candle, and all the costumed guests, with the exception of the king, burned to death. I am not sure, however that that was the queen’s plan! Who was she? She was the woman that handed the French throne to the descendent of the English crown, which in turn led to the arrival of Joan of Arc.

“Do not”, said our lecturers,” make an error on dates”. Dates, if anyone has not yet tried them in a foreign language, are hellish. Then followed a discussion on how the Germans, in order to route out foriegners and spies, would deliberately lead the conversation around dates, where the unwary would inevitably blunder. If the accent didn’t give me away first, clearly the dates would!

The trouble with the history of Normandy is that the English just didn’t know when to leave. In practically every epoch, or so it seems, the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy were held by the same man – and more often than not the English king had designs on the French throne. Clearly the English were not very good at throwing in the towel and returning home, however much more simple that would have made the revision process for me.

Clearly I have more English genes than I had anticipated, for even when the crowd of suited Directors of Tourisme and Directors of Normandie Patrimonie headed for me on Tuesday morning; when I should have seen their approach and run off down the road screaming in terror, I stood resolute, nurturing my limited vocabulary, ready to give my very best shot.

Part of the exam process had been to select a little blue envelope from the pile of 20 or so on the table. Good fortune was shining on me when I opened mine to discover the coveted ‘Aitre St Maclou, the macarbre Black Death cemetery’. Twenty minutes of preparation and we were at the location ready to begin the presentation.

Not to be deterred by the black suits, I led ‘Le Direction’ into an obscure corner of the cemetery to show them one of the few carvings that had survived the anti-iconographic destruction of the Wars of Religeon.

“Note the exceptional carving of Eve, tempted by the serpent” I said.

“Yves?” said Monsieur Le Direction, looking bewildered,

A hasty discussion ensued amongst the Direction, clearly concerned that Paradise had been inhabited by Adam and Yves, before Monsieur Patrimoine managed to clarify that it was an error of pronunciation,

“Ehv” he reassured.

When we moved on, Monsieur Patrimoine was clearly tempted to look at the statue of the murder of Cain and Abel, despite being very mutilated in the Wars of Religeon and in its very undignified position almost in the toilet, where-upon Madamoiselle Patrimoine expressed more than a passing interest in the location of the toilets. I rather suspect she went back there afterwards!

Twenty minutes later it was time to wrap up.

“The cemetery is now on the list of….” but my brain was weary and could no longer recall the translation for  ‘Historic Monuments’.

“Monuments Historiques” filled in Monsieur Le Direction, and my lecturer squeezed me a sympathetic smile.

I left the monument gutted at my linguistic inadequacy, sure of failure.

But a long five hours later an email popped into my in-box from the Direction.

“J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez réussi votre test en français ce matin”

“I have the pleasure to inform you that you have passed your test in French this morning”

The door of the Bureau de Tourisme is open wide. Their office is my office; I am now an official ‘Guide Conferenciére de Rouen’. There has been gain from the pain!

It was nearly the death of me!

So to all planning a visit to Rouen –

Bienvenue!

L’Aître St Maclou and Getting Cold Feet.


I have just returned home after two hours in the pouring rain and bitter cold. We are now in our tenth week of training for ‘Conferencier de Rouen’ and have 20 centuries of French and Norman history under our belt, and eleven edifices at our fingertips. Or we would like to think so!

There is nothing more demoralising than feeling ‘au fait’ with an edifice, or an epoque of history, than hearing the lecturer rattle of the dates in French, and not being absolutely sure that it was the corresponding date in ones own memory – specifically because having translated the date into English, the lecturer has already passed onto another great moment of history, leaving you in the dark as to what he was referring to!

I had a bitter internal struggle this morning as to whether I should leave my umbrella at home in order to have my hands free for note-taking or whether to just listen and consequently remain dry. Our lecturers have so much information stored in their incredible brains, that leaving the note pad behind really wasn’t an option. In the end I huddled under two hoods and got soaked, the two hoods doing nothing to aid comprehension or ability to hear!

Rouen is incredibly lucky historically to have one of the only two ‘Aîtres’ in France. The other, the Aître de Brisgaret is found at Montivilliers near Le Havre. The Aître St Maclou is found in the Martainville area of Rouen.

One must first imagine the city in the medieval age, a city with several fine stone public buildings, the cathedral and the Palais de Justice, to name but two, surrounded by the sinuous and tortuous alleys and streets of timber-framed houses with compacted earth roads and overhanging ‘encorbellements’, vertically narrowing the street and preventing the movement of air and light. To this underbelly, one must add the Normandy climate and incessant rain (!), the mud and the effluent. The sector Martainville was initially the land immediately outside the city’s fortified walls. It was area trapped between two rivers, the Robec, which ran alongside the city ramparts, and the Aubette which ran at the base of the cliffs that surround the town. The area was marshland, frequently flooded by the Robec to north and west, the Aubette, to the east and the Seine to the south. Into this landscape came the industrialists, keen to tap the water to power their mills for the textile trade. And with the trades came the ever increasing number of workers, densifying the built environment with unregulated building, unchecked effluent and high mortality rate.

The increase in industry and the necessity to trade brought with it a route for the highly contageous ‘Black Death’ or ‘Peste’ as it is known in France. The first swathe in 1348 decimated the population and the cemeteries became full. The ‘Hundred years War’ which began in 1345 and continued as a battle over territory weakened resistance to the ‘Peste’. This, combined with the need for high taxation to pay for the war effort, the shortages of grain from famine and lack of cultivation of  farmland created misery. Into this misery came the need to construct a new cemetery to cope with the soaring death rate.

The Aître St Maclou, so named after its resemblance to a Roman atrium, began initially in 1357 as a field, to which over the years to follow additional plots were added. In 1520 the gallery was built around three sides of the perimeter of the field, ostensibly to allow the richer residents of the quartier not to be interred in the ‘fosse commun’ or communal grave but at the edge where little chapels were available for visitors. The demand for space in the common grave became so high that it became necessary to interr the corpses with a caustic cement powder, (a bi-product from construction) to speed the decomposition. The Fosse or grave was worked with such a system that the skeletons could be exhumed without disturbing those still decomposing, and the bones laid to rest in an ‘ossuaire’, an open upper gallery of the building, thus leaving space for new buriels. Suffice to say, the job as grave digger was not only unpleasant but had a high turnover, as each in turn inevitably succumbed to the daily contact with the contagion!

The Aître has its own very particular atmosphere. It was built at a turning point in attitudes towards death and one senses a particular type of menace, reinforced by the incredible carving to both the timber structure, and the stone columns. The timber is heavily worked with representations of death. Skulls, bones, spades and coffins are carved on the horizontal beams, whilst the stone carvings carry grotesque scenes from the ‘Danse Macabre’. If all that does not adequately convey the ‘raison d’être’ of this remarkable building, perhaps the mummified cat built into the wall of the newer southern ‘wing’ will do the trick…

But i’ll leave that for you to find!

In the meantime, my exam is fast approaching; a twenty minute oral on one of the 16 edifices or sectors of Rouen, randomly chosen on the day by my examiners….

…and I’m getting cold feet!